Road tripping; touring historic Route 66 in bite-size pieces…old highway celebrates 90th birthday!

The Foothills Drive-in Theater sign is all the remains of the iconic drive-in theater in Azuza, CA that fronted on Rt. 66; the sign is now part of Azuza Pacific University.

Road tripping; touring historic Route 66 in bite-size pieces…
The fabled ‘Mother Road’ turns 90 this year!

Western terminus of Rt. 66 is on the Santa Monica, CA, Pier.

I was first exposed to Route 66 in the summer of 1962, when my mother packed me and my two brothers in the back of a Ford station wagon, towing a Nimrod tent trailer, and set off from Ohio to Chicago, then following Route 66 all the way to Southern California. My dad would fly into Los Angeles and join us – but we had two weeks on our own, on a journey along that fabled highway that changed my life.

Since then, I’ve done my share of reading about the historic route that connected existing highways in 1927 and knitted them together into a new US highway, Route 66. The government was reacting to the continuing popularity and growth of automobiles and more and more American’s willingness to travel long distances.

Back in the day, gas was selling for $.16-$.18 a gallon, new Fords and Chevys could be bought for $350 and $525, respectively – a large sum in those days – and Americans were beginning to revel in the open road. Then came the Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II and its aftermath and more and more Americans used the highway to head west to build new lives.

Old "Flying A" gas station on Shamrock Ave. in Monrovia, CA, once served Rt. 66 drivers.

The new highway took shape in 1926 when the Bureau of Public Roads authorized the first Federal Highway, by linking existing local, state and national roads; Rt. 66 debuted in 1927.  The result was a meandering 2,445 mile highway that began in Chicago, Illinois and crossed Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and ended in Los Angeles (a realignment 10 years later shifted the western terminus to Santa Monica). Aggressively promoted by the US 66 Highway Association as “the shortest, best and most scenic route from Chicago through St. Louis to Los Angeles”, travelers poured westward!

Small to large towns along the newly christened Route 66 looked at the road as an opportunity to promote themselves and businesses, restaurants, motor courts and gas stations exploded.  Though World War II caused a dramatic downturn in travelers along Route 66, traffic again increased dramatically at war’s end.

The once-classy Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, CA, was a popular overnight stop for Rt. 66 travelers.

President Eisenhower, noting the success of the German Autobahn during the war, spurred the construction of a new, Federal four-lane highway system in 1956 that would become today’s Interstate system.  Five new Interstates (I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 and I-10) would steadily replace Route 66 over almost 30 years, and in 1985 Route 66 was decommissioned (Williams, AZ was the last town bypassed).

The mother road turns 90 this year and the Nat King Cole hit, “Get your kicks on Route 66″ celebrates 70 years. Each year, more and more Americans endeavor to tour all, or part, of the historic highway. To do it well, Chicago to Santa Monica, you need at least 2 to 3 weeks. Better, for most, is to tackle the old highway in bite-size pieces.

That’s just what we’ve done over the past four years. We tackled our first segment, from Williams, Arizona west to California’s border four years ago, followed by the Oklahoma, Texas and eastern New Mexico portion three years ago, then the Needles, CA to Santa Monica section two years ago, and, last fall, the stretch from St. Louis, Missouri through Kansas to Oklahoma. That means we still have the Chicago to St. Louis stretch to navigate – hopefully a meandering diversion on our next trip across the central US.

Rt. 66-themed shops line the main drag in Williams, AZ, the last town bypassed by the interstates, which led to the decommisioning of Rt. 66 in 1985.

There is not enough space to share all our favorite memories of the roughly three-quarters of Rt. 66 we have toured.  But, in California they have to include Needles and the grand old El Garces Hotel (an old Harvey House Hotel) built in 1906, the Needles Theatre, circa 1930 and old Union 76 and Texaco gas stations.  Just behind the Route 66 Motel are the moldering remains of the old Carty’s Camp Motor Court, featured in the Grapes of Wrath movie. In Azuza the old Foothills Drive-In Theater sign remains and the end of the route, on the Santa Monica Pier.

In Arizona, Williams takes a top spot for creatively capitalizing on the nostalgia of the old highway, and, just west, the tiny town of Ash Fork, with abandoned truck stop and the town almost dried up, is sober testimony of a city that lost its luster when bypassed by the new Interstate. However, the next town west, Seligman, offers an example of how a small town off I-40 can recapture much of its grandeur by focusing on the highway’s drawing power.

Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and southern Missouri have their respective highlights; it’s fun to take the time to dig them out. Each small stop offers photo highlights and mute testimony to a simpler, slower age before Interstate travel allowed 70 MPH traveling.

An abandoned truck stop in Ash Fork, AZ, offers mute testimony to the future of many towns bypassed by the Interstate Highway system.

By the way, my life change: that 1962 family trip, which covered Route 66, then north through California and Idaho to Yellowstone Park, hooked me on the west and left me forever nostalgic about the old highway. That led me to a summer job in Yellowstone Park four years later where I met my future spouse. How can we not tour the balance of that old highway?

For more info on Route 66: Overall historic Route 66: nps.gov/nr/travel/route66; California, route66ca.org; Arizona, azrt66.com (other states have their own statewide associations).

"The Eagle has landed van", parked outside a dusty bar in what remains of Ash Fork, AZ, just blocks from the busy Interstate 40 that bypassed the town in 1985.

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at tviall@msn.com. Happy travels in your world!

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    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in late 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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